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BY Mildred Europa Taylor, 2:00pm March 10, 2022,

The life and journey of Rufino, enslaved African Muslim and professional healer in 19th century Brazil

This engraving by artist Jean Baptiste Debret, depicts Brazil’s urban black medical practitioners like Rufino. (Source: slaveryandremembrance.org)

Historians say that during the first half of the nineteenth century, Brazil, especially Bahia, was the destination of many African Muslims deported from West Africa to the Americas onboard slave ships. Most of them were Yorubas, Hausas, and Nupes who became known for their involvement in several slave uprisings. But there were other African Muslims who were less radical and did not cause any major trouble while living in Brazil. Rufino José Maria was one such person.

He was born in the kingdom of Oyo, in present-day Nigeria during the early nineteenth century. This was a time the Oyo Empire was ruling almost the entire region of Yorubaland, where a large Muslim community of Yoruba-speaking people and Hausa slaves lived. By 1817, there were agitations between Muslims and Oyo traditionalists that led to a slave revolt.

It was during this uprising and tensions that Rufino was captured and sold to Portuguese slave traders. Taken across the Atlantic, Rufino arrived in Bahia, Brazil, around 1823 and was sold to a druggist. He lived with this druggist and received training from him as a cook before being sold again to a high court judge known as José Maria Peçanha around 1833, an account by slaveryandremembrance.org said.

Some sources say that Rufino also worked as a slave of a local chief of police. By 1835, Rufino had bought his freedom and taken his owner’s name. That was how he became known as Rufino José Maria. Rufino was able to buy his freedom thanks to the money he saved while working as a hired-out slave in Salvador in Bahia and Porto Alegre, in Rio Grande do Sul, historian João José Reis said. He also made some money from Islamic amulets he made.

After purchasing his freedom, Rufino started working as an employed cook on the slave ship Ermelinda, making voyages between Luanda and the northeastern province of Pernambuco, Brazil. He is also believed to have invested in this ship at a time when the trans-Atlantic slave trade was still in full swing even though it had been abolished in Brazil in 1831.

Around 1839, authorities started capturing slave traders. Soon, Rufino’s ship was captured by the British and taken to Sierra Leone in 1841 to face trial by the Anglo-Brazilian Mixed Commission Against the Slave Trade, historian Reis said. For three months during the trial, Rufino was in Sierra Leone. While there, he lived among Yoruba Muslims and attended Quranic and Arabic classes in Freetown, learning more about Islam and the Arabic language.

When the court case with his ship was settled, he went back to Recife, the capital of Pernambuco. Within a few months, he was back in Sierra Leone to serve as a witness in a court case involving his employers and the English government. Rufino seized on this to start attending classes with Muslim leaders for nearly two years. By 1844, he was back to Recife, working as a professional healer while practicing a type of Islam that “incorporated practices that reflected African religious traditions,” according to slaveryandremembrance.org.

Rufino served both Whites and Blacks, freed and enslaved people, Muslim and non-Muslims, and Brazilians and Africans, Reis stated. Among the Afro-Muslim community, Rufino was well known as a spiritual leader.

Then there was trouble. In 1853, Rufino and scores of free people of color and freedmen in Recife were arrested after authorities accused them of planning a slave revolt. The police said Rufino’s arrest was based on the fact that he had in his possession several manuscript books and writings that were all in Arabic. Muslim rebels in Bahia had been found with similar material three decades prior to Rufino’s arrest, the police added.

Rufino at the time of his arrest was described as a “fat old man” who was almost 50 years old. He was calm while being interrogated by officials and this helped facilitate his release as he was seen as not a threat.

To historian Reis, Rufino’s life is used to “shed light on slavery and the slave trade, manumission, the complexities of slavery and freedom in Brazil, African freed persons, and the resilience of ethnic and religious identities.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 10, 2022


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